In a Society Defined by Excesses in Ease and Comfort, Choosing Pants instead of Sweats Could Save a Soul
For most of the 20th century, men and women put careful thought into their appearance. Even the poor and the casual dresser who either couldn’t afford to dress “well” or didn’t need to dress well spent time to look presentable, both in and out of doors. The poorest of the poor still had their “Sunday best” for Church or holidays and special occasions, and their day-to-day attire looked practically dressy compared to how many people commonly dress today.
That contrasts with the norms of society. Observing the grooming and dressing conventions of people today, you would think looking presentable is taboo or that the standard for what is “presentable” has degraded to a point where leaving the house appearing to have just rolled out of bed is stylish and intentional.
This is not a post about what you should wear. I'm not exhorting men to wear suits, or women to wear heels..
I’m not here to judge how anyone dresses or grooms themselves. If sweatpants all day, every day is your thing, hey, go for it. If you wear shorts 365 days a year, God bless you. If you conduct your daily affairs out of the house wearing pajamas or pants that look like pajamas, who am I to judge? Do you wear a suit when you go to the mall? Suit up! Regardless of your preferred style of dress, what I want to impress upon you here is that how you dress, groom, and present yourself—even if you never leave your home—yields an interior fruit of preparation for either virtue or for vice. Gaining an understanding of that may guide your choices when getting ready to face the day each morning.
It’s about Dignity, not Vanity
Putting due care into our appearance (dress or grooming) is not Vanity. Excessive or inordinate attention to our appearance is vanity. How we dress, groom, and present ourselves expresses our dignity. It’s an outward sign of an interior reality and tells the world how we think about ourselves and how they should think about us. We are dignified regardless of our appearance. But when our appearance fails to tell that to the world around us, the outward sign of our dignity (our presentation) tells a lie about us. And often, we start believing that lie ourselves. Dressing well makes us feel dignified. Dressing poorly does not.
Dressing well requires some thought and a little time and care. It requires patience, consideration, thought and planning, and even work. It takes more time to wear jeans than to wear sweatpants. One gets pulled on, and the other has to be [optionally] ironed, buttoned, zipped, and often (Ideally), a belt is worn. It’s not much more work or care than is necessary for wearing sweatpants, but it is more work and care. If we’re going “business casual,” even more care and attention are necessary. Grooming measures, like shaving, trimming facial hair, and carefully considering how we comb, brush, or set and style our hair requires additional time, care, consideration, and effort. Given the necessity for time and patience, care and consideration, work and effort, dressing well has the hidden benefit of conditioning our wills to virtue. Because virtue also requires all of those skills of self-mastery; time and patience, care and attention, and so on. The practice and development of virtues start with recognizing our dignity and the standard of perfection to aim for (God and principles) and progress by diligently applying those skills of self-mastery that enable us to mold our lives according to the image of God.
Dressing too casually (in shorts or sweats, for example) turns those skills of self-mastery on their faces. It requires no time or care, no attention or patience. This laxity is how vice grows. Because sin is easier than holiness, and it’s easier to neglect the good than to do the good. Doing the good (growing in virtue and in holiness) requires a strength of mind, will, and character that we don’t naturally possess. With the help of God’s sanctifying grace, we have to build that strength through effort in the same way that we have to build a weak muscle to make it strong. When our minds and wills are weak, only sinful/vicious acts are easy, and we choose to do them because choosing to do the good is beyond the strength of our will, unattractive to our weak and darkened minds, and unnecessary to our disordered character. But there’s yet another hidden characteristic of dressing well that leads to virtue: Patience.
"...those very things that the mind and will rebel against actually make us stronger and promote our growth in virtue and holiness."
Patience Wears Well
Dressing too casually or sloppily (okay…comfortably) is easy and a little too comfortable. Dressing well or appropriately is the opposite of that. It can be uncomfortable and sometimes inconvenient to dress well. Sneakers are more comfortable than shoes, and walking in them is easier and care-free. Shorts or sweatpants are easier and more comfortable to have on than jeans or dress pants. They’re also easier to care for, not needing ironing or other care and maintenance. But growing in virtue requires patience with things that are inconvenient, not ideal, uncomfortable, or even painful. Avoiding all discomfort makes our spirits lazy, sloppy, and even rebellious. The human intellect does not like discomfort or suffering. The human will rages against effort or denial of pleasure. It’s easier to be lazy than to work, to be sloppy than to be neat, and to have comfort rather than discomfort. And it is those very things that the mind and will rebel against that actually make us stronger and promote our growth in virtue and holiness.
You might be a little uncomfortable wearing jeans as opposed to shorts on a warm day at a baseball game (been there, done that). But that discomfort forces you to build patience and tolerance and trains you to endure suffering patiently at the most fundamental levels of your humanity (your will and your mind). Discomfort, then become a virtue builder!
We don’t need to dress like we’re going to a ball every time we go to a ballgame. We don’t need to wear business or business casual clothes to go grocery shopping. There are acceptable times and reasons to dress very casually, but those are exceptions to what should be the rule. There is a time and a place for sweatpants, but a wedding is not one of them.
My real focus here is not on how we dress but on encouraging you to think about the unexpected and seemingly meaningless things that lead to virtue or pull us toward vice. The things that require us to apply skills of self-mastery and deny us moments of unnecessary pleasures or comforts are those things that take us out of the dark of ourselves and orient us to the light of God and holiness. By His grace, we succeed. But not if we aren’t doing our part, too.